Question: Why do people from all over the world gather in Capistrano, California on St. Joseph’s Day (March 19th)?
Answer: They gather to witness the return of the cliff swallows. The swallows leave Capistrano around October 23rd (San Juan Day), and travel six thousand miles to Goya, Corrientes in Argentina to spend the winter there. A few scout swallows return a bit before that, but the main flock arrives back in Capistrano on or around March 19th, usually early in the morning. Welcoming them back is a tradition established by Father St. John O’Sullivan in the 1920s. The San Juan Mission in Capistrano was heavily damaged in an earthquake in 1812, and when Father O’Sullivan arrived there in 1910, he had the job of restoring it, a task that was never fully completed. Much taken with how the swallows returned so faithfully to build their mud nests at the mission each year, Father O’Sullivan called the event the Miracle of the Swallows, and a festival was born.
The San Juan area is much more urban than it used to be, however, and nesting sites and the insects the birds feed upon are in shorter supply. As a result, not many swallows come back to the mission itself and a vocalization machine behind the statue of mission’s founder, Father Junipero Serra, attempts to lure them there by emitting the birds’ mating call.
But regardless of how many or how few swallows return, people come to greet them. The day involves festive clothing, guest lecturers, Mexican food, Mariachi bands, Flamenco dancers, performances by local schoolchildren, and of course, the ringing of the mission bells.
Nostalgia Bonus: The Lennon Sisters singing “When The Swallows Come Back To Capistrano” on the March 18th, 1967 episode of The Lawrence Welk Show: